While agriculture is the backbone of Kenya’s economy accounting for about 60 percent of total employment, farmers still continue to grapple with myriad challenges that negate agricultural productivity. For farmers in Meru, extreme weather conditions is a notable hindrance; a condition that has driven growers to adapt small scale irrigation techniques to boost production.
The approach that has been practiced in Meru for over three decades has had a toll on the streams in the county forcing farmers to turn to scientists to find sustainable solutions to improve the efficiency of irrigation and precision farming in Meru.
Leveraging on the use of technology in agriculture, JKUAT’s Water Research and Resource Center (WARREC) in collaboration with SNV-Netherlands is implementing two Smart Water for Agriculture (SWA) projects in Meru County.
The SWA project has provided partial scholarships to two JKUAT post-graduate students; Simon Mogere, and Sarah Nagami who are working with Flying Sensors and Rota Sprayers respectively. The projects aim at assessing water productivity of crops grown under irrigation for smallholder farms and evaluate the technical performance of the Rota Sprayer irrigation system with regards to water application uniformity.
Use of Flying Sensors project, currently implemented in Marimba, Githongo and Kibirichia in Meru County, uses drones, referred to as ‘Flying Sensor’ to assess water management and crop health in irrigated fields of cabbage, potatoes and other vegetables.
A flying sensor is a small drone that can fly up to 200m above ground and take high resolution images utilising the Near-Infra Red (NIR) spectrums of light. The images are later decoded and the information shared with farmers.
“Using this technology, farmers can discover diseases on plants and stress indicators which are impossible to see with the naked eye thus encouraging precision farming,” explains Prof. Bancy Mati, WARREC Director and the project team leader.
Simon opines that apart from early detection of diseases on plants, the information obtained from the sensors can also help farmers make prompt decision regarding irrigation water application in various sections of the field without over-application or under-application ensuring optimal water usage.
Patrick Gikunda, a farmer in Githongo who had just harvested his cabbages attested that he was confident that the data obtained from the flying sensor was critical in his increased yield this season.
The Rota Sprayer project, assessing a new type of sprinkler that sprays water in a larger area compared to the conventional sprinklers is being implemented in Kaguru and Meru Central. The innovation has proven popular with Small and Medium-sized Entrepreneurial (SME) farmers.
According to Sarah, the Rota Sprayer system operates at low pressure and applies water uniformly within the wetted perimeter and can cover an area of 100m2 in one application. She also says that the system is simplified, easy to assemble, light in weight and affordable by the SME farmers.
“The design considerations of the Rota Sprayer irrigation system makes it a better option especially for the SME farmers who have limited resources. For instance, the low operating pressure will help the farmers reduce the pumping cost. Instead of using a pump the farmer can irrigate by gravity, using a raised tank at approximately 3m high,” elucidates Sarah.
Nathan Muthamia, a farmer in Tirimiti, Meru says that the system has made him work efficiently and has become the envy of his fellow farmers in the relatively dry area.
“With this system, I work for two hours straight without getting worried about moving my sprinkler system for irrigation,” indicates Mr. Muthamia.
In comparison to the drip system, regularly used in Kenya, the Rota Sprayer system is less susceptible to clogging since the boom is made of aluminum pipes and the outlets are easy to unblock either by flushing the pipes or by using a sharp object to pierce the outlets in case of clogging.
“The drip system is highly susceptible to clogging of the emitters which renders the system non-functional whenever the emitters are clogged,” says Sarah.
Although the system has proven popular with SME farmers, Sarah admits that it is a new innovation and needs technical performance evaluation to help the farmers achieve optimum agricultural production through irrigation.
The two students are under the supervision of, Prof. Mati, Chairman, Soil Water and Environmental Engineering Department, Dr. (Eng). James Messo, Prof. Patrick Home and Dr. Jackline. Ndiiri both of Soil Water and Environmental Engineering Department and Dr. Abraham M. Haile of SNV-Netherlands.